Some Thoughts on Newman’s Unquiet Grave

I first read a review of  the book Newman’s Unquiet Grave in the December 23, 2010 New York Review of Books, that was both interesting, even challenging by Eamon Duffy. I read the review twice and then purchased the book. I identify as queer and was interested, even curious about Newman’s platonic romances with men. Thinking on the possibility of other forms of human relations outside the, now, usual frames of the late 20th Century America. And the controversy that attaches itself to the present debate about the question of Cardinal Newman’s sexuality.  But a question more to the point might be about the nature of the emotional attachments to ‘special friends’ that was his lifelong emotional leitmotif; although Newman had special friends, something actively discouraged by the Catholic Church. How does one make a determination of the sexuality of a celibate man of the 19th Century?  We can, however, map Cardinal Newman’s emotional trajectory across his lifetime, focusing upon his relations with significant others.  I don’t think it is possible to project the validity of gay sexual identity, of our time, onto a man of the 19th Century, where that construct could not exist. I find Cardinal Newman a fascinating individual and historical person possessed of a religious temperament and great literary talent and ambition.  As an atheist, I cannot begin to comprehend or maybe even appreciate, the religious temperament, yet Newman, even in death, remains a charismatic intellectual force and being. Mr. Cornwell presents a compelling case for the notion that Newman was attracted to men, and had some significant long term emotional attachments to them; the evidence is strong, even irrefutable. But there is a continuing note of defensiveness in Mr. Cornwell’s arguments against the ‘gayness’ of the Cardinal.  The imposition of a late 20th century sexual identity onto a person fully  of 19th century Britain is specious, but the preponderance of evidence of his ,a t the least , emotional preference for  passionate attachments to men is conclusive. Although no evidence may exist for actual sexual practice between Newman and his friends, he is, by the evidence provided by Mr. Cornwell, thoroughly enmeshed with the lives and emotions of his fellows. Can we speculate that on a sexual continuum Mr. Newman is more and passionately attracted to men than woman: even given his lifelong friendships with women?   I will say that academic homophobia seems alive and well, in the sometimes near hysteria, of the mere positing of Newman as a sexual being.  As if he was not human, i.e. partaking of the divine?  It probably makes concrete, the political notion of the de-sexualized male leader, as exceptional to ordinary beings: an idea, now, thoroughly discredited by the numbers of priests, with the aid of the Catholic hierarchy, involved in the sexual abuse of children and its cover-up. The question should be asked:  What is to be gained by identifying Newman as ‘gay’? ; a political maneuver by gay Catholics rescuing Newman from a thoroughly homophobic curia, a rebuke to Pope John-Paul ll packing of the College of Cardinals with theological neoliths?  Enshrining the first ‘Gay Saint’ would be proof of what?  Must the life of John Henry Newman fulfill any political agenda? Or are we as readers and writers obligated to, in our narratives, simply provide a portrait that reflects an unflinching report on the actualities of a life lived, not a projection of our present ‘pragmatic political necessities’?

About stephenkmacksd

Rootless cosmopolitan,down at heels intellectual;would be writer. 'Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.'
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